California Okays Driverless Cars but Demands Cybersecurity

California will allow autonomous cars without drivers next month but with a long list of conditions, including a cybersecurity requirement.The most populous US state will allow driverless cars for testing and for public use beginning April 2, the Department of Motor Vehicles said on Monday, February 26. The agency won’t permit driverless trucks or commercial vehicles but said it would study the safety and regulatory issues around that question.

As home to mild climates and some of the biggest autonomous car firms, California is the leading state for testing, with 50 companies approved to run trials. The state has issued permits to test self-driving vehicles with backup drivers since 2014.

Driverless cars might go commercial first in Arizona, where Alphabet’s Waymo subsidiary plans to launch a robot taxi service this year around Phoenix and recently won a car-for-hire license. But Waymo, Uber and GM’s Cruise division, all based in the San Francisco Bay Area, are all pushing hard to get vehicles on the road without drivers. In statements sent to The Connected Car, all three welcomed the announcement but didn’t say when they would deploy driverless cars in the state.

Americans are still wary of self-driving cars, and the long list of conditions that comes along with the new permission reflects some of their concerns.

For one thing, any company providing a driverless car for public use will need to certify it meets “current industry standards” for protection against cyber attacks intended take control of the car or disable it, though those standards are still a work in progress. In addition, a remote operator will have to be able to connect to the car.

Companies that want to test cars without drivers will need to notify local authorities in writing. The state will also keep requiring annual disengagement reports, where companies doing tests disclose when and why autonomous systems failed or had to be overridden.

The fact that supposedly self-driving cars have had software failures and can’t always deal with unexpected situations during testing has raised some alarms.

Companies will still be able to get permits to test self-driving cars with backup drivers onboard.

Fully driverless cars also raise other new questions, some of which the DMV has tried to address with its regulations. The cars will need a way to communicate with law enforcement when there’s no one in the car for an officer to talk to. They’ll also need to be able to transmit information about their owner or operator in the event of a crash.

States are scrambling to set rules for self-driving cars, in part so they can participate in what is seen as a potentially huge industry that’s just getting off the ground. This month, Massachusetts, Indiana, Utah and Washington, D.C., have taken or debated steps to regulate the technology.

Critics worry a crazy quilt of regulations will stunt the growth of a national industry. Congress is now considering legislation to set standards for self-driving and driverless vehicles. But the rules of the road are mostly set by the states.

— Stephen Lawson is a freelance writer based in San Francisco. Follow him on Twitter @sdlawsonmedia.

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